The American criminal justice system consists of 2.2 million people behind bars, plus tens of millions of family members, corrections and police officers, parolees, victims of crime, judges, prosecutors and defenders.
WBEZ is partnering with the Marshall Project to tell some of their stories. It’s part of The Marshall Project’s series “We Are Witnesses” exploring the nature of crime, punishment and forgiveness through portraits of Chicagoans who have been touched by the criminal justice system.
Celia Colón told her story to The Marshall Project as part of their series “We Are Witnesses.” Portions of her interview are transcribed below. They have been condensed and edited for clarity.
My name is Celia Colón. I’ve been impacted by the justice system my entire life.
I was raised on the South Side of Chicago, proud Chicagoan, but from the age of 5 to 11 I lived in Florida. My mother suffers from mental health issues, and I grew up in a very violent environment.
When I was 12 years old, my mother was beaten by her boyfriend with a rolling pin. I had four younger siblings in the house, and my older sister had ran away already — because not only did we suffer physical abuse, but a lot of sexual abuse in the hands of my mom’s boyfriends, or his friends or my mom’s brother. When she got beaten — I still remember the day like it was yesterday. It was a shiny rolling pin, and he had beat her so bad that he had her left her, like, unconscious and bloody.
So I don’t know what got in me, but I remember going underneath my mom, putting her on my back, and walking out the front door, and putting her in the station wagon and I put all my brothers and sisters in the backseat. And I jumped onto two yellow phone books, and I jumped on Highway 75 and it started coming to Chicago. My mom woke up when we were in Tennessee and she couldn’t believe I did what I did. And I told her that if she wanted to go back she could, but I’m done.
The first [Chicago] apartment building that we ever moved into — and I’ll never forget ‘cause that’s how my life took a turn — it was a gang unit. So I got recruited, and I became real loyal to the gang. They gave me everything that I never had. They gave me a sense of family, a sense of protection, a sense of support. So I thought it was cool, right? I was like, this 12-year-old girl who has 10 or 20 gang members walking her to school every day.
I got into a fight with one of my cousins’ baby mama’s when I was 18. And I just wanted to, like, fistfight her — I didn’t want to harm her. And my gang member friends, they came out and everybody jumped her. She ended up getting really hurt; she ended up getting stabbed. And I ended up catching an attempted murder [conviction] because I was the oldest — I was 18.
I don’t think I was a threat to society. I think that I was a very hurt child with a lot of trauma. And I needed mental health support and care, and I needed somebody to step in to tell me that violence is not acceptable and that’s not the way somebody is treated.
My healing begin in prison. I started writing everything I ever wanted to do in life — the experiences I wanted to have, the education goals, and just started mapping out my new life. And when I came home, I stayed very focused, and I stuck to it. I feel that if you can take care of and figure things out mentally, the physical falls right in place. It’s all about healing from within and deciding that you’re gonna have a different life, deciding that you’re gonna go a different route. I always tell people, you’re always, like, just one decision away from a different life.
You can see more of the “We Are Witnesses: Chicago” videos at https://www.themarshallproject.org/witnesses. This story was produced for broadcast by WBEZ’s Alyssa Edes. Follow her on Twitter @alyssaedes.